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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

December 26 2004 saw an unprecedented disaster killing more than 150,000 innocent people, uprooting millions, and devastating the economy of vast regions in many nations in South and South-East Asia. It is impossible, with today’s technology to precisely anticipate an earthquake and know when and where it will affect people. Such unavoidable suffering is part of human existence, and we have to face it with courage and accept it with equanimity. For centuries throughout our history and civilization, Indian people, like all other nations on earth, faced the ravages of nature with stoicism and fortitude. Mankind will continue to face such dangers in future too. We are too puny before the incomparable might and fury of nature. Mother Earth, which nurtures and sustains us, also can be the destroyer occasionally.

But the real tragedy in the current disaster is not the unexpected trembling in the bowels of earth on ocean bed. The destruction and suffering caused on account of such a powerful earthquake of 9.0 magnitude on Richter scale is unavoidable. Nor could we have prevented the tsunami that resulted from it. But in any sane society, we could have, and should have, anticipated the impact of tsunami once we came to know of the earthquake in the ocean bed. And therefore, we should have warned the coastal populations of the danger ahead.

On December 26, 2004, I was on a small island, as a member of Commonwealth team, in Maldives close to the Male Island, which is the seat of government. As I was reading at my table in my third floor hotel room, I felt the tremors of the earth at 6.25 AM. My guess was that they were of the magnitude of 4.0 on Richter scale locally, which makes it a mild earthquake. Not knowing the local seismic history, I presumed it was a local phenomenon related to the volcanic islands. As we were in the middle of the ocean, the thought of a tsunami crossed my mind, and I shared it two hours later with my colleagues from the Commonwealth Expert Team.

Little realizing that the earthquake was of the magnitude of 9.0 at the epicenter, and a tsunami was already devastating several nations, we crossed the short stretch of ocean separating us from Male on a boat, and went for a meeting with the Election Commissioner. Within minutes, about three hours after the earthquake, a tidal wave enveloped Male and all the more than 1000 islands of Maldives, and the whole low-lying, flat nation was under three feet water. Luckily for that tiny country, the wave was not high, and loss of life was limited to about 70 persons. India and Sri Lanka had about 150 precious minutes after the quake before the tsunami hit our shores. Our science and technology establishments must have surely known and recorded the earthquake in Andamans and Car Nicobar islands. Considering that the Andamans are much closer to Indonesia than to India, the quake must have been of about 6.5 to 7 magnitude on those islands. Even a casual comparison of the timings and magnitude of the tremors on Andamans and east-coast of Indian peninsula would have given us an immediate indication of two facts: a) that the earthquake's epicenter was located further to the east of Andamans somewhere in the ocean bed, and b) it was of an unusually high magnitude. Once these two facts are known, the likelihood of a tsunami could have been anticipated instantly. All these conclusions could be drawn without even consulting any other country, and without any elaborate global warning system.

If even this minimal level of alertness was exhibited by our science and technology establishments, they could have alerted the populations in the Andamans and on our east-coast, and probably even Sri Lankan east coast. The Air Force personnel, who were bravely carrying out their duties far from the mainland, would have been saved by such a warning. The innocent Sunday-morning joggers and walkers on the beaches and the fishermen’s families in Chennai would not have lost their lives. The lives of thousands of devout pilgrims in Nagapattinam assembled for post-Christmas Sunday prayers at church would have been spared. The physical damage could not have been prevented, but precious lives would surely have been saved. This is a serious failure – not on account of absence of global tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean, but because of the callousness of those whose job it was to monitor earthquakes and inform the population.

And in the year 2004, it is the height of insensitivity and complete failure of imagination to say that even if authorities knew, they could not have alerted people. This would have been true even 20 years ago. But today we have several 24-hour satellite news channels – global, national and local. The earthquake occurred not in the dead of night, but in the morning hours when people are hungry for news. Three hours is a long time in today’s world, and tens of millions of people on coastline could have been alerted within minutes. All it needed was not technology or time, but deep concern and professionalism. The people of Aceh province of Indonesia probably had no real hope of saving themselves, given the impact of the earthquake itself, and the very short time gap between the tremors and the tsunami. Perhaps, even the Thai authorities did not have enough time to respond. But Indian and Sri Lankan officials had a fair chance with some 150 precious minutes in the morning at their disposal. That the tsunami struck us on a leisurely Sunday-morning during the holiday season was indeed singularly unfortunate. But, those who are entrusted with the lives of millions cannot claim immunity on the grounds that it was a Sunday.

That lives could have been saved by advance warning is not a mere conjecture. Take the case of the 70,000 villagers on the island of Simeulue in Indonesia, 60 kms south of the epicenter of the earthquake. Amazingly, only 5 people died on the island, and all of them in the earthquake. Although 90% of the buildings on the coast were destroyed by the five-metre-high walls of water that followed, not one person died. In another town of Meulaboh, about 60 kms north-east of the epicenter, thousands perished in the tsunami. The miracle in Simeulue was possible because the people ran to the hills the moment the earthquake struck. We do not require a global warning system to anticipate a tsunami when an earthquake hits the ocean bed.

It is not my desire to be wise after the event, or judge those in positions of responsibility harshly. But we, as a people, pay for all public infrastructure and salaries of employees, and we are entitled to good service. Even if during normal times we face corruption and callousness everyday, in times of national calamity we have a right to expect public servants to go that extra mile to save thousands of lives. Otherwise, we don’t need any government, and taxes need not be paid at all. I know that it is easy to sit in judgment of others, and therefore, ordinarily I am very generous in assessing the work of those in public office. But in this case, even the most elementary precautions have not been taken, and the information available was not put together in a coherent way in order to make sense, or to enable the political leadership and administration to draw reasonable conclusions and alert the people.

This failure is actually symptomatic of a deeper malaise in our public functioning. That the authorities in Somalia were caught napping several hours later, and people died almost half a day after the tsunami started on its destructive course shows that there are countries much worse than us in public systems. But that Somalia is even worse than India is hardly a consolation. Our perception of public office is largely related to a sense of personal power. Power is the center of our being in Indian society, and most political and bureaucratic scuffles are for power as a private attribute, but not about ideas, institutions and outcomes. In such a pervasive culture of power as an end, and position as personal goal for private gain, public good is the inevitable casualty.

In some ways, our strengths as a society have become a great source of weakness to our country. For most of us, our own family is all-important, and larger public good is incidental. There are, of course, outstanding public servants among us whose dedication and devotion to duty have promoted larger public good abundantly. A lady teacher in Guntur district (AP) who took on herself to visit the coastal villages on her two-wheeler without anyone’s prompting, pleaded with the local fishermen’s families to reach the high ground for safety, and saved hundreds of lives, is a glorious example of such devoted service. But sadly, such passion for public good is the exception, and not the norm.

In many Western democracies, people talk about public servants paying a heavy price in personal terms in order to serve the public cause. Many give up office after some years, as such high price is not sustainable. Half of George Bush’s cabinet left office during the President’s second term. Most of them opted to leave; they were not dismissed. Let alone cabinet ministers, even more humble public servants like city managers and police detectives pay a very heavy price to discharge their duties. There are umpteen number of police officials whose passion to solve a murder case and bring the culprits to justice has become such an obsession that it extracted a heavy toll on their lives. Sometimes they get ulcers on account of stress; nervous breakdowns are common; and the constant neglect of family often results in divorce – all for public cause!

If we judge our public servants by three yardsticks – integrity, competence, and commitment, most would only get a ‘C’ or ‘D’ grade. The reasons for this woeful failure are many. There are no real incentives for excellence, as good performance is rarely rewarded, and bad performance never punished. Actually good behavior is fraught with risks, and bad behavior is often rewarded! Then we have a culture of lazy policy and poor execution. Witness free power as a substitute to sensible farm policies and a search for panaceas to combat poverty instead of doing some painstaking work to improve education, healthcare and infrastructure. Finally, we have no real sense of priorities, and the urgent always swallows the important. Public work, which is regarded as glamorous – revenue, police etc – is often a symbol of power finding its expression as nuisance value. But the truly important areas – saving lives, healthcare, education – are often unglamorous, and examined only when catastrophe strikes.

Nature’s fury cannot always be controlled, but the resultant tragedy can certainly be mitigated. That is the lesson we need to learn from this awesome tragedy, which engulfed so many nations. But we also need to build public systems, and celebrate passion and spirit of public service in order to prevent avoidable suffering. A thorough and objective enquiry into the failure to warn people of the likely tsunami is necessary. Blaming the absence of a global warning system will be mere abdication of duty. We need an enquiry not to find scapegoats, but to understand the malaise that has crept in, and help us take corrective action for the future. The human failure in this tragedy is even more appalling than nature’s ravage. There is no substitute to professionalism and passion for public good. These are priceless qualities, which need to be treasured and nurtured.